Activist Bree Newsome and other ‘faith-driven agitators’ lead a charge for social justice at Wild Goose

"We have the opportunity to introduce two saints of God," said Rev. Jennifer Baily (far left) introducing James Tyson (second from left) and Bree Newsome (second from right). Also pictured is Micky ScottBey Jones, far right.
"We have the opportunity to introduce two saints of God," said Rev. Jennifer Baily (far left) introducing James Tyson (second from left) and Bree Newsome (second from right). Also pictured is Micky ScottBey Jones, far right. Photo by Jordan Foltz

Sunday, July 12, marked the final day of the fifth annual Wild Goose Festival, now in its third year at the current Hot Springs location. With the tagline “Spirituality, justice, music and the arts” the festival brought together more than 2,000 people from various spiritual persuasions that fall under a very inclusive Christian umbrella.

“One of the most important things about this festival is that most of us are just dang tired of the religious right defining what Christianity is,” said Rosa Lee Harden, executive producer.

Harden described the festival as an opportunity for forward-thinking, progressive Christians to come together and “see that they’re not crazy.” The event introduced people who have similar relationships with their faith and allowed them to learn about ways they can stand up for something and make a difference, she added.

Over 100 speakers, musicians, artists, poets, performers, authors and organizers presented over the course of the four day gathering, all curated under this year’s theme, “Blessed Are the Peacemakers.”

While that theme may sound warm and fuzzy — and perhaps conjure images of campfires and Kumbaya — make no mistake about it it: While attendees could definitely find space for a gentle uplifting singalong or even a dose of poppy Christian rock, this year’s event more closely resembled a summit for faithful revolutionaries who know well that nonviolence doesn’t always mean a lack of conflict.

With many basing their life’s work around the messy struggle of pushing society by agitating the status quo, the presenters at Wild Goose exhorted audiences to think deeply about how they live and how their lives measure up against the change they want to see in the world.

"Because many refuse to acknowledge that the Earth is a living, interrelated system and because many value some families and some lives over others and determine some ethnic groups as valuable, we remind them that the struggle of the Earth and the Struggle of the people are one," sang Jay Beck  (far right) part of musical group Carnival de Resistance.
“Because many refuse to acknowledge that the Earth is a living, interrelated system, and because many value some families and some lives over others and determine some ethnic groups as valuable, we remind them that the struggle of the Earth and the struggle of the people are one,” sang Jay Beck (far right) as part of musical group Carnival de Resistance. Photo by Jordan Foltz

Speaking to the annual theme, Harden described peacemaking as anything but passivity or acquiescence. “If you want wars to stop, you can’t just say ‘all we are saying is give peace a chance,’” she said, referencing a talk by author Sara Miles that had taken place on Friday afternoon. “We’ve got to be active in understanding war. … We’ve got to study war to understand what’s happening. Wars don’t just accidentally stop. … We will not have peace as long as people are treated unfairly and unjustly.”

A spontaneous addition to this year’s lineup were activists Bree Newsome and James Tyson. Newsome recently gained national attention after climbing a flagpole to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse following the shooting deaths of nine black worshipers in Charleston. Tyson aided in that effort, posing as a construction worker to serve as Newsome’s spotter. The video of the flag removal went viral on Youtube and was filmed by Asheville-based videographer Andrea Desky, according to an interview Desky gave with local blog AshVegas.

Due to fear of possible retaliation attacks for their action, Newsome and Tyson were not announced at Wild Goose until just hours before they took the stage on Saturday evening.  But even with their ad hoc appearance, the audience spilled well beyond the tent into the surrounding glade.

“I’m an agitator and that is what I do,” Newsome said to the crowd. “The establishment has done a really good job of making it seem that agitation is the opposite of peace,…[but] Gandhi was one of the biggest agitators that ever lived. Jesus Christ is one of the biggest agitators that ever lived.

“The only time that Jesus was in the temple was when he was flipping stuff over and waking people up,” she continued. “Sometimes that’s what we have to do because a lot of time what the establishment calls ‘peace’ is really just order. It’s not peace. It’s not peace if you’re living under police occupation. When there’s a symbol of hate flying and people are afraid to take it down because they are afraid of retaliation — that’s not a peaceful society.”

Newsome added that her father is a theologian and minister, but despite being raised in the Baptist Church, it wasn’t until about two years ago that she fully “found the holy spirit.” Newsome describes this spiritual awakening as a turning point that galvanized her activism in social justice.

"When I got to the top, what I said was 'You come against me with oppression and hatred and violence—I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!" -Bree Newsome (center)
Addressing a crowd at Wild Goose, Newsome said, “When I got to the top, what I said was ‘You come against me with oppression and hatred and violence — I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!” Photo by Jordan Foltz

Newsome and Tyson stated that agitators are always the ones implicated for unrest, when in reality, agitators uncover the violence that often lingers just under the surface of an ostensibly functional or peaceful society or situation. As an example, the pair cited the brutality and violence of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s: it isn’t that the pre-civil rights Jim Crow era was peaceful—the violence was always there waiting to erupt as soon as the status quo was questioned.

“They had to sit at lunch counters and do these kinds of things to force that ugliness to reveal itself because so often it stays hidden,” Newsome said. “And I think that’s essentially where we’re at now.”

Newsome has been part of the Black Lives Matter movement since 2013, and Tyson — a 2007 Warren Wilson graduate — has been active in Occupy Charlotte and other grassroots environmental justice fronts. The pair met on June 23, just four days before taking down the flag, and trained rigorously in preparation.

When asked what legacy she hoped to leave, Newsome replied, “At some point I stopped doing and started being and was like, ‘Lord, you already know what I want with my life, you already know things I’ve dreamed of. You just tell me what you want for my life.’ That was the point where I really felt the spirit come over me and kind of died to myself.”

Newsome added that at this point it she isn’t focused on her legacy, but on humanity “being the beautiful reflection of God that we’re all called to be.”

Tyson said that he is doing his best to take a back seat from the spotlight and hype. Hugely important to the power of this action and its subsequent publicity is elevating a woman of color’s voice, he noted. “Hollywood has created plenty of white men heroes,” he said. “I’m going to take a back seat role. Let’s face it: We need more Brees.” The audience roared with applause.

Newsome and Tyson have used the media frenzy to spread their message on highly viewed networks including CNN and MSNBC, but Newsome said that the attention she is getting seems out of place. She emphasized that she is just a part of a movement that started in 2013 with the Trayvon Martin killing, has been propelled by several other police killings and is driven by thousands of activists who receive little-to-no acknowledgement or hype.

“As a human being it really, frankly, disturbs me that my unhooking a flag upset you more than all these things that have happened over the past two years as part of this movement,” she said.

Newsome added that a lot of the media ask “why” she and Tyson removed the flag. After all, the flag’s removal was already in legislative discussion. But that’s not the point, she said. In fact, part of the the point was to prevent South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley or any other politician from taking credit for political gain.

“What [taking the flag down] did was it did not allow them to push the false narrative that they were pushing about their legislative process,” Newsome said. By taking the flag down, the pair actually forced the state to raise the battle flag back up, she added, a task that was given to a black employee.

Harden added that it was a last minute arrangement for Newsome and Tyson to speak at Wild Goose, and that she sees Newsome bringing a lot to this year’s festival. “She’s kind of become an icon,” Harden said. She added that Newsome shows “that you can make a difference and you can do something, and your issue can be noticed because of personal action.”

Another Wild Goose speaker of note was the Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, MO. Blackmon, a prominent activist and organizer, was appointed to the Ferguson Commission after her early response to the racial tensions that followed the killing of Michael Brown Jr. She was at the festival to preach at Sunday’s closing ceremony and participate in a panel called “Revolutionary Love & Militant Nonviolence.”

Bree Newsome (left) poses for a photo with Rev. Traci Blackmon shortly after the two activists met.
Newsome (left) poses for a photo with Rev. Traci Blackmon shortly after the two activists met. Photo by Jordan Foltz

After Newsome’s speech, reporters, performers and activists gathered under a small tent behind the stage for a brief press conference and photo op. All fell silent as Blackmon stepped up and embraced Newsome—the two activists meeting for the first time. Blackmon began to cry as she held onto Newsome. “Thank you,” she whispered.“Thank you for snatching down that flag. Thank you.”

Newsome replied, “Y’all lit my fire in Ferguson, and no one’s going to stop until we’re all free.”

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About Jordan Foltz
Exploring the subtle and esoteric aspects of what drives and inspires people to take action— including religion, spirituality, ethics, and aesthetics.

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2 thoughts on “Activist Bree Newsome and other ‘faith-driven agitators’ lead a charge for social justice at Wild Goose

  1. Ambrose

    As the first paragraph states, this is a very inclusive event, particularly if one falls under the “forward-thinking, progressive Christian” umbrella. From what I’ve heard, it’s not very inclusive if one is a Christian who doesn’t fall underneath that umbrella. I just find it a bit ironic that “inclusive” sometimes means “open only to progressive ideas.”

    Aside from that, I’ve not had a chance to go to the festival, nor do I think I would be very welcomed there. But I’ve heard the music is good and there are a number of engaging speakers who come out.

    • Cathy

      Ambrose, this was my third Wild Goose Festival. You will probably find yourself very welcomed. It is also a place for quiet conversations and deep listening. It is a place where people are able to experience commonality on the big issues and put the smaller differences into perspective. I have never felt uncomfortable at any campfire. It is always amazing how quiet and thoughtful 2000 people can be on the banks of the French Broad River.

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